Sony's latest Media Center PC has pretty much everything you could ask for in an entertainment machine, including dual digital TV tuners, a decent graphics card and a Blu-ray drive that lets you watch the latest blockbuster movies in high definition. But is it worth the wallet-bashing asking price of £1,700, especially as it doesn't even come with a screen?
Sony has produced some neat media PCs in the past, but they've all lacked one important ingredient -- a second TV tuner. Thankfully this issue has finally been addressed with the XL302. It comes with two hybrid (analogue and digital for Freeview) tuners, so you can record one channel while watching another, or record two shows at the same time.
The PC runs Windows Vista Home Premium so you get to use the slick new version of Windows Media Center. There's plenty of space for storing TV shows, music and pictures on the twin 250GB hard drives that have been configured as a single, massive 500GB disc.
While the Intel E6400 processor may no longer be top of its class in terms of performance, it still has more than enough poke to keep everything ticking over at a pleasing pace, especially as it's backed up by a generous 2GB helping of memory. Even the Nvidia GeForce 7600GTL graphics card can handle the latest games when you turn the detail down a touch.
The real stand out feature, though, is the Blu-ray drive. Not only can this play the latest blockbuster high-definition movies, but you can also use it to burn your own Blu-ray movie discs or back-up data on to 25GB single layer or 50GB dual layer blanks.
Another major plus is the noise from this PC, or rather the lack of it. When running, it's almost silent, no mean feat for a machine with such a healthy specification.
Although Sony has addressed the issue of dual tuners, it hasn't done so in a very elegant way -- the tuners are on different cards so you have to use a splitter to connect them to a single aerial. It would have been much better to employ a single card with dual tuners, such as the one used in the Asus Asteio D22 DAV media PC.
Another annoyance is that Blu-ray movie playback still isn't integrated fully into Media Center. Although there's now a menu option for the Blu-ray player within Media Center, this simply starts up the external WinDVD Blu-ray player. Still, this is more Microsoft's than Sony's fault -- support for Blu-ray hasn't been integrated into Media Center yet.
Some may also be put off by the sheer size of the box. Although designed to slot in under a flat-panel telly in the front room, it's still huge and takes up much more space than an ordinary piece of AV kit. It's also one of the most expensive media PCs on the market at the moment -- the Blu-ray drive pushes up the overall system price.
It's difficult not to be impressed by this Media Center PC. It looks good, runs nearly silent and has a seriously impressive specification. Sony has really gone out of its way to pack this box full of the best goodies available.
If you're not fussed about Blu-ray, you can opt for the VGX-XL301, which costs £700 less and comes with a DVD re-writer. The hard drive is smaller, and the processor slower, but you can always buy an external drive with the money, and the slower processor shouldn't matter. If, however, you're set on getting the ultimate under-the-telly Media Center PC, the XL302 certainly fits the bill.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield